Sometimes being the most powerful person in an industry means facing the greatest scrutiny. For Mary Callahan Erdoes, running one of the most reliably profitable businesses at the country's largest banking company now means weathering part of the regulatory storm sweeping over JPMorgan Chase.
Erdoes has spent the past four years as head of the company's asset-management division, which handles more than $2 trillion in assets for its wealthiest customers. Her division frequently appears on lists of top money managers, and has been a steady source of profit for the parent company at a time when most in the banking industry are struggling for reliable returns.
But not many are envying JPMorgan Chase or its top executives recently. Since April 2012, when the extent of a disastrous trade in its chief investment office came to light, the firm and high-profile Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon have been in the crosshairs of regulators, lawmakers, shareholders and the press.
The London Whale's $6.2 billion trading loss opened the floodgates to Congressional hearings, and to a long and loud (and ultimately unsuccessful) shareholder campaign this year to strip Dimon of his chairmanship. It also precipitated a steady stream of executive departures and increased regulatory scrutiny of almost every corner of JPMorgan Chase's operations, including the business line run by Erdoes.
"We spend a lot of time with the regulators and they work very closely with our business. We have a great relationship with all of them," she said in an interview this summer. "It's a very good, healthy dynamic. It doesn't mean we won't trip up on something, somewhere in the future, and then we'll learn from it, we'll work hard at it and we'll move on. ... Trust me, there's self-learning every second of every day."
Brisk yet thoughtful, Erdoes does not engage in pity parties, but she carefully lays out her case that JPMorgan Chase is more bellwether than outlying bad actor when it comes to regulatory targets.
"In many ways we're sort of a highlighted example," she says. "I feel incredibly proud to work for a bank, and incredibly proud to work for JPMorgan. ... Not happy for some of the mistakes we've made along the way, but the mistakes will make us better."
She also downplays the effects of the C-suite turnover. Since last year, Dimon has lost or replaced a chief financial officer, a co-chief operating officer, a chief risk officer, a chief investment officer, a co-head of litigation and several more senior executives and heads of businesses.
"Personally, it's never fun to see people you enjoy working with retire or leave," Erdoes says by phone in late July, on her way to a retreat in Massachusetts for JPMorgan Chase executives.
"[But] does it affect me doing my job? Not at all."
Erdoes, age 46, is part of Dimon's 12-member operating committee, and a pillar of stability at a company that, even before last year, regularly rotated executives through various lines of business. She has spent 17 of her 24 years in the industry at JPMorgan, all of them in asset management or private banking, and has earned widespread respect for her ability to handle the money of pension funds, central banks, foundations and the rarefied wealthiest 1 percent.
"Our asset management business delivers consistently strong results, and Mary's leadership is the driving force behind that performance," Dimon says. "She has an incredibly deep understanding of our clients' needs and the strategic vision to deliver solutions for them. She's an extremely talented leader."
Asset management businesses and their more mass-market incarnations are increasingly important to the industry, as banks struggling with low interest rates and poor margins turn to the steady revenues yielded by wealth-management fees. JPMorgan Chase has led the charge, building special locations devoted to serving wealthy customers and resettling branches to position them closer to the most affluent.
Banks are "looking for areas of revenue growth, and they're looking for areas that have less volatility and risk. Wealth management's been a natural segment that's been highlighted and has done well for the banks," says analyst Marty Mosby of Guggenheim Partners. He praises the performance and high ranking of JPMorgan's mutual funds, saying, "That bodes well for the image that the company has of becoming more than just a bank in the eyes of its customers."
Erdoes has navigated the more competitive landscape with a sharp eye for hiring the best wealth managers. Such "talent management," she claims, is her most important role and greatest strength.
"The hard part of the job every day is the investment performance. You can't will it, you can't have a lock on it ... and it's the most dynamic part of what we do," she says. So "you spend all of your time and energy making sure that you have the right people sitting in their seats and that they have the right resources. ... And it's also the weeding out of the people who aren't going to make it, because it's hurting our clients."
But some industry watchers point to another factor behind Erdoes' success: her unit's aggressive sales of in-house investment products to clients. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency last year warned JPMorgan that it had failed to comply with restrictions on sales of its proprietary products and with obligations to retirement plan investors under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Several former JPMorgan financial advisors have filed lawsuits or arbitration claims over similar charges in recent years.
Erdoes would not comment on specific regulatory issues, but described her discussions with regulators as a collaborative effort. "They're just asking to not be surprised," she says.
As for the aggressive sales of in-house investment products, Erdoes argues that the company's wealthiest clients come to JPMorgan in part because of those proprietary products, which she says confer additional legitimacy on its financial advisers.
"We think that the reason that so many clients come to us is they want to come to someone that actually manages money in addition to picking other managers, because they're better at the picking if they are themselves one. It's like going to a doctor who doesn't practice medicine [and asking for a referral], versus going to a doctor that practices a specialty but also can refer you to a person that he or she thinks is the person best in the industry doing X, Y or Z thing," Erdoes says.
"You can have 10 great managers in a portfolio, but if they're all headed in the same direction when the market goes one way or the other, that's not a proper, diversified portfolio. And so having one person oversee all the different managers and being one of those managers is again why I think we've had such a disproportionate share of assets come our way," she adds.
Erdoes is regularly mentioned in the press as being on the shortlist of eventual successors to Dimon. But industry insiders are skeptical. Unlike the other oft-cited potential Dimon replacements-many of whom, it must be said, have eventually been shuffled out-Erdoes is a specialist rather than a generalist.
"The other guys, like [investment bank co-head Michael] Cavanagh, etc., they get put on high-profile projects to fix and they jump around a lot," says analyst Paul Miller of FBR Capital Markets. Without a similar breadth of experience to complement the depth of her involvement in asset management, he says, "I think she'd be a long shot."
But if she has any regrets about her resume, Erdoes doesn't admit to them. "I have found what I love to do. It doesn't mean there won't be things I will love to do in the future, but right now I have the energy and the wherewithal to keep giving it my all, and so that's what I'm focused on."
Asked about potential replacements for Dimon, she gives what has become the party line at JPMorgan Chase regarding CEO succession at the firm: "Hopefully, Jamie will never leave," she says.
Erdoes, who was the only female math major in her class at Georgetown University, has a complicated position on the subject of diversity in the predominantly straight, white, male banking industry. She has publicly railed against the idea of "special treatment" for women, and dismisses the narrative that seems to emerge every time a prominent female executive, like an Ina Drew or a Sallie Krawcheck, is pushed off her perch.
"The problem is, because there are fewer women, they are higher profile and they get the disproportionate share of the stories," Erdoes says. "I don't think anybody is out to have problems hit a female any differently than a male."
She has become-under her own terms-an advocate for women, participating in Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" community and this year launching JPMorgan Chase's related program "Women on the Move."
Her focus is largely on advice for professional women, exhorting them to take responsibility for their own success instead of dwelling on systemic, structural challenges to gender parity.
"I cringe at the concept of quotas. I cringe at the concept of women getting promoted or being put in positions just for the sake of being women, because none of us women or minorities of any ilk want to think that they've got to a place in life because of the religion that they chose or the color of their skin or the gender that they were born. I really don't like that and fight hard not to try to allow any of us to move in that direction," Erdoes says.
"It's behavior on the woman's part," she adds, becoming increasingly animated as she runs down the list of problems that she sees women creating for themselves: "You want to be treated as an equal, then act as an equal. You want to be respected, speak! You want to be heard, don't sit in the corner of the room. You want to taken seriously, don't wear a miniskirt and flip-flops.
"Women can do whatever they want in the workplace equal to men. ... It's how we position ourselves and the poise that we have. ... That's often the thing that we don't train people enough on."
At times Erdoes appears to be arguing against the ideas of Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton professor and former State Department official who posited in a much-cited article in The Atlantic last summer that women "still can't have it all," and that those who do are "genuine superwomen." Count Erdoes as one of them.
"You can have it all," Erdoes says. "Sometimes you can't have it all at the same time. Sometimes you can't have everything that you want on every given day. You might have to give up on working out during a week with a lot of incredibly intense work, or if you're traveling you might have to give up on being able to see friends and family. ... But in the end, if you keep your compass in the right direction, and you keep it balanced, it can work."